Planting more trees. This is officially the hot new solution to climate change that Republicans are rallying around.
Indiana’s two Republican senators, Mike Braun and Todd Young, are both backing a new bill encouraging the planting of forests around the world to suck planet-warming greenhouse gases out of the air.
Democrats hope the legislation, to be introduced Wednesday, is a sign that congressional Republicans may be willing to strike deals on climate with President-elect Joe Biden after he takes office next month — even as most GOP lawmakers in Washington refuse to acknowledge his victory.
But planting one trillion trees is an idea that several GOP lawmakers – and even President Trump – have rallied behind, rapidly emerging as the ground floor of what can be done in Washington. A similar proposal in the House received a cool reception among some Democrats, who argued it was not enough to plant trees without more comprehensive and drastic action to address the crisis.
“Frankly, the easiest or the simplest to implement means of carbon sequestration is trees,” Sen. Chris Coons (Del.), the leading Democratic sponsor on the bill, said in a recent interview.
The new bill takes baby steps at boosting efforts to lock carbon out of the atmosphere — and into forests.
The legislation, titled the Trillion Trees and Natural Carbon Storage Act, directs the U.S. Forest Service to set goals for how much carbon the forests, grasslands, wetlands and some coastal areas should sequester from the atmosphere.
It also authorizes the Agriculture Department to spend more money on nurseries that grow saplings and to guarantee loans for projects seeking to sell credits into markets that aim to cap emissions.
In a statement, Braun called his bill a “common sense proposal to help improve our land, water, soil, and air, without imposing onerous Washington regulations.” Sen. Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, is a co-sponsor.
The proposal dovetails with a similar one backed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and other Republicans.
Trump backed that support of an international effort to plant a trillion trees around the world, too, in an effort to rebrand himself as a “great environmentalist” after four years of rolling back environmental rules.
But House Democrats accused the Trump administration simply offering a fig leaf of a climate solution while simultaneously proposing logging in virgin woodland, such as the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
“My friends across the aisle want to plant some trees, which is great, but they also want to roll back protections that will allow clear-cutting in places like the Tongass,” Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) said at a House Natural Resources Committee hearing in February.
Such a modest measure alone is not enough to curb emissions as fast as U.N. climate scientists say is necessary.
It will also take substantial cuts in emissions from cars, power plants and other sectors this decade to halt dangerous levels of warming.
But Coons, a Biden confidant who represents the president-elect’s home state, argues his party needs to work across the aisle to pass legislation and make a lasting impact on climate change and other issues.
“Any bill that is Democrats only, great,” Coons said. “Put it in your campaign brochures.”
The Senate bill sands some of the edge off the House proposal. It does not, for example, waive requirements for environmental review for some logging projects, like the House bill does. That provision drew the ire of some environmental groups.
“This scientifically robust bill puts the U.S. on a path to unlock the potential of nature-based climate solutions,” said Elizabeth Gore, senior vice president of political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “It follows recommendations from climate scientists and nonprofit organizations to focus on measuring climate impact instead of number of trees planted.”
The forestry proposal is the first to emerge from the Climate Solutions Caucus, which Coons and Braun launched a little more than a year ago. The pair have also sponsored a bill aiming to help farmers cut their emissions, as well.
Republicans — especially young ones — increasingly see climate change as a problem.
The tree-planting initiative comes as polls show large numbers of young and suburban Republican voters are concerned about rising temperatures.
According to a poll last year by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 7 in 10 Republican adults under 45 said that human activity is causing climate change.
While Trump has mocked the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg after she was named Time’s Person of the Year, Braun has said he thinks she is inspirational.
“I would never want to diss someone like that,” Braun told our colleague Jacqueline Alemany earlier this year. “She’s talking about an issue that she ought to be sincerely concerned about because if we don’t, we’ll pay a consequence for it.”
Biden plans to nominate the Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, veteran lawmaker from Ohio, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development and will tap former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary, our colleagues Annie Linskey, Matt Viser and Seung Min Kim.
Fudge, who declined to confirm the nomination, had publicly lobbied for the Secretary of Agriculture position last month, touting the backing of a coalition of progressive groups who argued that she would be willing to take on large agriculture corporations and push social justice concerns. Some of these same groups dismissed Vilsack as too close to corporate interests.
The HUD position will still place Fudge in a central role overseeing the administration’s efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change through programs related to disaster and climate resilience.
Vilsack, who previously served as the agriculture secretary during the Obama administration, has pitched Biden on a vision of expanding the Democratic party’s outreach in rural areas.
But he has faced criticism, however, from some Black officials over his 2010 firing of Shirley Sherrod, a Black agriculture official, who was forced out after a conservative news site posted edited clips of a speech she made that appeared racist out of context.
The fight over a leading contender for EPA chief is revealing divisions among Democrats and environmental groups.
Mary Nichols, the longtime head of the powerful California Air Resources Board, is considered a front-runner to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. She has won praise for pushing auto companies to increase fuel efficiency and capping pollution from power plants. She also has received endorsements from prominent political players, including former GOP governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), our colleagues Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin report.